You’re finally in the Christ-mas mood. Perhaps you want to trim the tree or wrap presents or indulge in cookies and eggnog. You want the full throwback experience, but you don’t have any Christmas music to spin on your turntable, and you don’t want to hear the same old stuff from the local holiday-hits station. What now?
One of the best parts of collecting Christmas music is that you can obtain a good collection for not a lot of money. Except for music that is collectible for other reasons — for example, doo-wop, punk/alternative, audiophile reissues, 1990s vinyl — most Christmas albums are common and cheap. Many are likely to lurk in the bargain bins at thrift shops and used record stores. But don’t let that deter you! If it’s that old-time feeling you want, the $1-or-less stuff is exactly what you want. Because many of the albums were played only one month a year, even the cheap stuff often is in great shape. Actually, because the albums weren’t always stored with care, a mint-minus cover might be harder to find than a mint-minus record.
For this survey, the focus will be on vinyl albums. Collecting Christmas music on 45 is different; in recent years, some 45s, especially those that still get played on the radio, have become expensive. And CDs are yet another discussion.
In general, Christmas albums fall into two basic categories: various artists collections and single artist records.
VARIOUS ARTISTS ALBUMS
When it comes to the authentic vintage Christmas experience, nothing beats an album with favorite holiday songs performed by numerous different singers. The versions might not be the most famous, but they’ll still be good. With one exception, we’ll focus on those collections put out by the record labels’ special-markets divisions.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the most common way to get such an album wasn’t by going to a record store, but to places that rarely offered music the rest of the year — tire stores, hardware stores, banks and the like. These albums were designed as impulse buys, often kept by the cash registers. This is far from a complete list, but below are four of the most famous series.
Though a few predated it, the golden age of the Christmas premium album starts in 1961, with The Great Songs of Christmas. Offered at Goodyear tire dealers, it was such a phenomenal success that the press run of 900,000 albums was completely sold out by December 1. This resulted in larger pressings in future years — which is why these albums, cheap in the 1960s, remain common and cheap today.
Goodyear offered a new album every year from 1961 through 1977. The first nine all were consecutively numbered editions of The Great Songs of Christmas. The 10th was Best of the Great Songs of Christmas, with highlights from earlier volumes. Starting in 1971, the Goodyear albums had a different name each year, but they all had the Goodyear logo on the cover.
The first three albums were issued only in mono. Albums four through seven were available in either mono or stereo. All the volumes starting with eight were in stereo only.
As these albums became more popular, Columbia, which released most of the volumes via its Columbia Special Products label, began to have its artists make special Christmas recordings that were, at the time, exclusive to Great Songs of Christmas. The New Christy Minstrels and Tony Bennett are just two examples. For the ninth volume, Goodyear got two new recordings by Petula Clark, who was on Warner Bros. Records in the U.S. at the time.
The 1972 volume, Christmas Is, is worth finding because it marked the first time the Carpenters’ 1970 hit “Merry Christmas Darling” appeared on an album. The song also sounds really good here.
In 1975, the Goodyear albums switched from Columbia to RCA. The first of these was called Henry Mancini Selects Great Songs of Christmas. For two more years, the Goodyear series hung on, but those last two LPs — Mancini Moods at Christmastime, basically a straight reissue of Mancini’s 1966 Christmas album, and The Great Songs of Christmas, with tracks only by Perry Como and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy — are relatively hard to locate.
A year after Goodyear released The Great Songs of Christmas, its fierce crosstown rival, Firestone, got into the Christmas album market as well. Unlike Goodyear’s approach, the Firestone LPs, under the auspices of advertising jingle firm Forrell & Thomas, were constructed almost as cantatas, with exclusive versions and complete lyrics on the back cover. Seven volumes were issued in this series (1962-68).
In 1966, Firestone pulled off a major coup by landing an entire new Christmas album by Julie Andrews, then all over movie screens as the star of The Sound of Music. This album, with a different order and a couple more songs, was reissued by RCA Victor in 1967 as A Christmas Treasure.
Most of the volumes had slightly different titles each year (Your Favorite Christmas Music was used more than once), but they are all easily identifiable by their package-with-a-bow cover design. The first volume was issued in mono only; the last was stereo only; the others were in either mono or stereo.
The 1967 mono version might be a little harder to find, but otherwise, all seven of these “cantata” albums are common.
After these seven albums, Firestone offered Christmas albums during the 1970s, mostly through Capitol Special Markets. The only way to know these are Firestone LPs, though, is if the shrink wrap is still on the cover, thanks to a red sticker stating “Seasons Greetings Firestone.” Having only a sticker on the shrink made it easier to repurpose those albums that didn’t sell the first time. There may be others, but the four Firestone albums from the 1970s I know of are Christmas America (1973), Christmas America Album Two (1974), The Wonderful World of Christmas (1975), and The Wonderful World of Christmas Album Two (1976). All are common, but finding one with the sticker is harder.
In 1988, Firestone issued a two-record set commemorating the original series titled Your Favorite Songs of Christmas: 20th Anniversary Collectors Album. This is much harder to find than the original seven albums. It also contains nothing from the mono-only 1962 album, nor does it have any of the Andrews tracks.
The “cantata” format for a Christmas album was revived by Hallmark Cards in 1985; that series evolved over time into single-artist albums and lasted well into the CD era. The last Hallmark album on vinyl was in 1991.
True Value Hardware
After Goodyear and Firestone, the most fondly remembered Christmas series is Happy Holidays, the albums sold by True Value Hardware.
The first Happy Holidays came out for the 1965 Christmas season. Uniquely for its time, it contained both Christmas and seasonal songs in hopes that buyers might play it into January and beyond. After the first two years, True Value dropped the dual-purpose format and went to all Christmas music.
The first volume was released only in mono. Volume 2 came out in both mono and stereo, and all later volumes were stereo.
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